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Tanker war puts pressure on Iran
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

The second attack on oil tankers in the Gulf in a month last week has been leading to more pressure from the United States on Iran to stop its aggression in the region, according to western and Arab Gulf sources.
Saudi Arabia joined the US in bluntly blaming the attack on Iran. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that his country did not want a war in the region, but he stressed that it “will not hesitate in dealing with any threat against our people, sovereignty and vital interests”.
The same approach came from Washington in the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who told the US channel Fox News that the US did not want to go to war with Iran but would take every action necessary, including diplomacy, to guarantee safe navigation through vital shipping lanes in the Middle East.
In a first show of such measures, the Saudi Air Force flew in joint formation with US F-15 fighter jets over the Gulf region on Sunday. Saudi and Emirati marine patrol boats increased the duration of their rounds in the Gulf after the first attack on four tankers off the coast of the UAE in May.
Iran has tried to deflect attention and deny its responsibility for the latest attacks despite the fact that they happened closer to its shores. Its rhetoric that a “third party” was responsible for the escalation of the tensions was dismissed by many in the region.
Columnist for the Sharjah-based Al-Khaleej newspaper in the UAE Ayman Ali said that it was logical for Iran to carry out the attacks, referring to its increased economic hardships due to the sanctions against it.
With Iranian oil output down by almost a quarter of a million barrels per day in May, and its exports dropping to slightly over 800,000, Tehran would not sit idly by, according to Ali.
It is a common belief in the Gulf region that extremists are running the show in Tehran, reducing President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif to mere PR figures. Acting under the guidance of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) generals have taken the lead of Iranian policy in the current crisis.
The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, recently commented on Twitter that actions, not words, were needed from Iran to prove it was changing its aggressive policies. He also mocked a conspiracy theory circulated by Zarif about a lobby influencing US policy against Iran.
“Every single day Iranian foreign minister Zarif's reference to team B becomes more farcical and his credibility diminishes. Public relations are no real substitute for constructive policies. De-escalation in the current situation requires wise actions not empty words,” Gargash tweeted.
The UAE stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Saudi Arabia in linking the Yemeni Houthi drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia with the tanker attacks as part of concerted Iranian aggression. Nobody seems to be buying the Iranian denial of its involvement.
Bloomberg oil strategist Julian Lee wrote on the US-based outlet Bloomberg Opinion that Iran was behind the attacks on tankers in the Gulf.
“The obvious answer is Iran. If Tehran is attacking tankers, either directly, or through proxies, it sends a message that transit through the world's most important choke point for global oil flows is not safe without its consent. If Iran is pushed to the brink economically by sanctions, it will not go quietly,” Lee wrote.
So far, the response to Iran's actions has been restrained, but if the attacks on the tankers continue things will change. Meanwhile, all the parties are wary of a return to the so-called “Tanker War” in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War.
At that time, 451 vessels were attacked in the Gulf, according to a report from the US Naval Institute. Both Iraq and Iran were accused of carrying out the attacks on shipping vessels, most of them carrying oil and refined products.
The US Navy resorted to escorting vessels through the Gulf, and Kuwaiti ships had to raise the American flag so the US military could legally protect them without objections from the US Congress. That might not be possible now, especially with presidential elections looming.
The Gulf countries are calling on the international community for a strong response to the Iranian actions that threaten a vital international maritime route, but they also acknowledge that the brunt of securing Gulf shipping will be on their shoulders, as Ali noted.
“Secretary Pompeo is seeking an international push against Iran, but most likely it is the Arab Gulf countries that will end up protecting their own interests, of course with the help of allies like the US, the UK, and others,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The Gulf countries believe that continuing pressure on Iran might bring it to its senses and bring about a change in its aggressive policies towards its neighbours. The economic sanctions against it are biting, and the Iranian regime will not be able to justify rising hardships for its population for long.
In justifying his country's support for American sanctions against Iran, the Saudi crown-prince said in his interview that he hoped the Iranian regime “would opt to become a normal state and cease its hostile policies.”
The de-escalation efforts are not yet bearing fruit, and the restraint exercised by all the parties might wear thin, especially if tanker attacks and drone or missile attacks on Saudi Arabia continue.
This means that there is a “wait-and-see” situation in the Gulf amid hopes that a further squeeze will succeed in “normalising” Iran.

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